But as it’s spread, Occupy has been equally met with police violence, suppression of media coverage and the occasional stunning disregard for the rule of law. Images of police hitting protesters with batons, coupled with the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and flashbombs have flooded the internet. In a well publicised case in Oakland, former Marine Scott Olsen was hit in the head with a tear gas canister and admitted to hospital in a serious condition. In a nation that venerates its military, perhaps it takes a veteran for police violence to matter.
According to Twitter and the Occupy movement’s texts as well as press releases from both the movement and the Mayor’s office, the early morning raid cleared the protests’ two-month-long “model society” of its infrastructure, including spaces and structures like the women’s safe space tent, the medical tent, and thousands of books from the “People’s Library” — which were seen in the back of a dumpster.
This move in New York follows after similar attacks over the weekend against Occupy protesters in Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City and Oakland. Oakland mayor Jean Quan recently implied on a BBC interview (audio at 5:30) that there has been a co-ordinated effort between cities to remove occupations: “I was recently on a conference call with 18 cities across the country who had the same situation.” Though politicians have cited spurious safety concerns, it is hard not to conclude that there is a concerted effort amongst the nation’s leaders to squash dissent.
Indeed, it appears to be the fact that the Occupy movement has claimed public space itself that is a profound threat. Quan suggests Occupy movements move to private space–“in New York City, it’s interesting that the Wall Street movement is actually on a private park, so they’re not, again, in the public domain, and they’re not infringing on the public’s right to use a public park.” Protesters, one gathers, are not part of the public, nor is their right to free assembly a right that can be exercised for very long.
Of course, Quan is wrong to suggest that private space offers a haven for the Occupy movement. Bloomberg cleared Zuccotti at the request of the company that owns the park–an explicit reminder of the government doing the bidding of corporations against the people it supposedly represents. Neither publicly owned nor private space are safe for sustained protest.
Blogger zunguzungu, at the Occupy Cal protest at the UC Berkeley campus suggests that the university’s nonsensical justification of police force forms “an active refusal to require a philosophy in justifying its choices.” As the post makes clear, the 1% the Occupiers face use only partial explanations, refracted through PR doublespeak to defend their actions.
It is arguable that this active refusal describes the broader use of power by the political and economic ruling classes and their police enforcers–sovereign power exercised with or without justification, with or without legality; sovereign power that merely mimes the familiar tropes of free speech and democracy, even as it moves from the politics of consent into quite a different form of governing the population through surveillance and force.
Though one can find descriptions of the Occupiers’ motivations in independent media, the mainstream media takes the perspective of the ruling class, struggling to enforcing an increasingly implausible neoliberal reality principle in which cuts to public programs and government jobs “make sense” but taxing obscenely wealthy corporations does not.
A democracy that is only a democracy when there is no serious dissent, that ignores the interests of the majority of its people, that ruthlessly squashes protest, that uses Kafkaesque bureaucratic language to pave over the violence in both its everyday functioning and its treatment of dissidents is no democracy at all. One can speak publicly, but it had better not be effective, is the dictate of a pseudo democracy–and whether you agree with them or not, the Occupiers have been remarkably successful in pushing the public conversation towards truly seeing the decimation of the nation’s working and middle classes. It is for the very reason of Occupy’s effectiveness that the pantomime among political leaders of allowing the exercise of free speech is being abandoned.
Of course, many of the nation’s most marginalised and vulnerable people have long known how thin the line between democracy and totalitarianism is, have watched the militarisation of the police and the corporate take-over of the political system, and experienced the violence of that system enacted firsthand on their bodies.
There have been, to be sure, no deaths at the hands of police. And there has not been a formal state of emergency declared. But if the co-ordinated removal of a largescale democratic and non-violent movement advocating for nothing more radical than a return to basic income equality, responsible taxation and regulation, and a functioning social welfare state–if this does not convince that freedom in the United States is largely an ideological fiction that can be suspended at any time, then perhaps nothing will.